11/13/2014 05:56 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Out of Character

Scarlett Zuo speaks with Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo!, about "Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy", an exhibition featuring selections from his collection of Chinese calligraphy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In a gallery room full of massive works of calligraphy, Jerry Yang greets me with a warm smile and a firm handshake. Yang has many labels: co-founder of Yahoo!, angel investor, philanthropist...the list goes on. Few people recognize him as a passionate collector of Chinese calligraphy.

Yang offers to give me a tour of the exhibition, so I follow him into the numerous gallery rooms, softly and warmly lit to blend in with the century-old papers on the wall. He then introduces the artists and the story behind each piece as I walk down the gallery rooms with him and curator Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, who speaks highly of Yang's knowledge of calligraphy and the quality of his collection.

The forty-five pieces on view showcase the evolution of Chinese calligraphy and its significance to Chinese culture. From Shitao's Five Poems on Plum Blossoms, to Huang Daozhou's Poem Dedicated to Wen Zhenmeng, to Zhao Mengfu's The Lotus Sutra, calligraphy is utilized to depict daily life, social interactions, and religious beliefs.

One may wonder why a tech guy would fall in love with ink and brush. Indeed, one often associates traditional art with works of the Old Masters and technology with computer and smartphones - they do not seem to belong to the same world. However, technology has constantly pushed the progress of artistic development. New materials and tools have enabled artists to create new forms and new experiences: imagine Vermeer without camera obscura or Warhol without acrylic.

The creativity and innovative spirit of ancient Chinese calligraphers often inspire Yang. Many of the calligraphers were edgy for their time, experimenting with different brush materials, paper, and styles, Yang says. He believes there is hardly any difference between using technology to renovate software and testing possibilities to transform an old art form.

When we look at the Writings in Praise of a Houseboat China, a long hand scroll by Li Mengyang and twelve other calligraphers in the Ming dynasty, Yang compares it to a modern-day newsfeed where people write on top of each other's posts. "This is the original social network," he laughs.

Yang now even occasionally practices calligraphy at home, but he admits he is not very good. He points at the cover of The Thousand-Character Classic by Wen Peng of the Ming dynasty, where Yang wrote the title on a slip in clerical script. "Now I can tell people I'm being exhibited at the Met," he jokes. "I'm in the case!"

At the end of our tour, Yang expresses his hope to share Chinese calligraphy with the American public. Although Chinese calligraphy is often seen as archaic and obscure, Yang sees it as a gateway to Chinese culture and history. He hopes that viewers can see calligraphy not just as decorative art, but also as a record of the creative processes and social interactions of Chinese intellectuals, as inspiring today as ever.


Scarlett Zuo is a junior at Yale University. Contact her at

This article also appears in China Hands.